When Emma Donoghue began work on The Pull of the Stars in 2018, she had no idea how eerily similar the world would be to her setting a hundred years prior when her book actually published. According to her Author’s Note, she delivered the finished manuscript in March 2020 – the same month that the US became engulfed in COVID-19. And when the book published later that year in July, the US would be past its first wave with at least four more surges to go.
- Posted propaganda: “Cover up each cough or sneeze… fools and traitors spread disease”
- People with “bluntly pointed masks like the beaks of unfamiliar birds”
- Lingering symptoms that include dulled senses
- Signs announcing a variety show with “cancelled” stamped on across it and sporting events “postponed for the duration”
- A sense that “there was a certain relief to having had [a] dose already”
- Bodies “leaning away” from the “ambiguous sound” of someone coughing in public
- “Half the news was made up…[o]r slanted to boost morale, or at least censored to keep it from falling any further”
- “This flu was clogging the whole works of the hospital.”
While these descriptions sound like snippets from the current news cycle, they are actually scene setters in the opening pages of The Pull of the Stars, set amid the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic in Ireland.
The protagonist is Julia Power, a nurse with a speciality in midwifery, serving in the maternity ward of a flu clinic – and not a real ward, but a supply closet that has been converted to a three-bed unit. Her patients, pregnant women with active flu who – like women who are pregnant with COVID-19 – are more likely to deliver prematurely or as stillbirth.
The narrative follows three days in the ward with three women in very different, but common to the age, circumstances. Aiding Nurse Power is a young and eager volunteer – Bridie Sweeney – an orphan whose services have been farmed out from a nearby convent. She’s completely untrained, but willing to learn and do whatever is needed. (Another familiar theme.) Bridie is a welcome resource because these times have meant a lean staff and many – including Nurse Power – are working beyond their training.
Emma Donoghue is best known for Room, a 2010 book nominated for the Booker Award and shortlisted for the Orange Prize (I highly respect both awards) about a young boy being held captive with his mother in a small room. It is the only life he has ever known, and as a tactic of survival, his mother personifies all the objects around them.
While The Pull of the Stars (a reference to the origin of the word influenza which comes from a Latin reference of the influence of the stars) is no piece of literary or award-worthy fiction, its timely release amid another flu pandemic makes it an engaging and worthy read.
Postscript: I’ll stop short of providing any spoilers for those who have not read it, but I’m curious of those who have – what did you make of the rooftop scene? I hated it. I think it cheapened where it meant to intensify. And while it didn’t ruin the book for me, were I giving it a star rating, it would lose at least 1/2 a notch for what I consider to be political pandering. Would love to know your thoughts!
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